Audio: Emiliano di Cavalcanti's Sonhos do carnaval
Emiliano di Cavalcanti (Brazilian 1897-1976)
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Emiliano di Cavalcanti (Brazilian 1897-1976)

Sonhos do carnaval

Emiliano di Cavalcanti (Brazilian 1897-1976)
Sonhos do carnaval
signed and dated 'E. di Cavalcanti, 1955' (lower left)
oil on canvas
51 x 63 in. (130 x 160 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
Acquired from the artist (circa 1956).
By descent to the present owner.
Rio de Janeiro, Galeria Exclusividades, 1957.

Lot Essay

Hailed as the patriarch of modern Brazilian painting, Emiliano di Cavalcanti for over fifty years celebrated the bohemian street life and rich sensuality of his native Rio de Janeiro, probing the diverse social and cultural landscape of his country through his artworks. As a young artist, Di Cavalcanti presided over the watershed Semana de Arte Moderna in 1922, which marked the emergence of Brazil's young avant-garde and the first surge of its modernist values. Like fellow artists Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti honed his pictorial language during two periods spent in Europe (1923-24, 1935-40), where he drew powerful inspiration from Renaissance and modern masters alike. But though informed by contacts with Matisse, Braque and particularly Picasso, his painting persistently addressed the Brazilian universe, re-imagining its people and their traditions through strikingly modern forms.

"Our art has to be like our food, our air, our sea," Di Cavalcanti explained of his approach to painting. "It has to reveal our culture, since good art is always cultural and its own dimension that of anticipating a cultural moment. The true artist becomes modern for his age: he brings the new, he is the herald of a new era."(1) Di Cavalcanti brilliantly conjures the essence of Brazil's cultural heritage in Sonhos de Carnaval, paying modern homage to Rio's legendary Carnaval, the annual festival of sybaritic pleasure and performative abandon held over the days leading up to Lent. A dizzying bricolage of surreal, oversized female bodies and their masked aggressors looming in the background, the painting epitomizes the wild exuberance and almost delirious sensuality of the holiday, rendered through luminous, kaleidoscopic color and post-Cubist composition. Di Cavalcanti celebrates the myriad beauties of the feminine body, rendering nubile women in fantastic states of dreamlike reverie, lyrical gesture, and costumes riotous in color and bold design.

A consummate image of the winsome carioca spirit, Sonhos de Carnaval is both a modernist painting and a social affirmation of the artist's identification with the underprivileged and marginalized classes of Brazilian society. "His solidarity with the lower classes expresses itself pictorially in the themes and the exaltation of the woman who symbolizes these classes--the mulatto woman," critic Ferreira Gullar has remarked. "If his pictorial language comes from the reinvention of the human figure conducted by Pablo Picasso, the ideology parallels that of the Mexican muralists."(2) Many of those most involved in the pageantry of the Carnaval have historically come from the city's poorest favelas, and Di Cavalcanti portrays the often maligned mulatto woman--symbolized in the present work by the recumbent figure at the base of the painting--as the true embodiment of the Brazilian soul. Here, her ruddy, serpentine body is venerated as the originary site of sexual and, indeed, of social power: it is through her dreams, the title tacitly implies, that the magic of the Carnaval comes so vividly to life.

Abby McEwen, Assistant Proefessor, University of Maryland, College Park.
1) E. Di Cavalcanti, quoted in Ferreira Gullar, "The Modernity in Di Cavalcanti," in Di Cavalcanti, 1897-1976: pinturas, desenhos, jóias, Rio de Janeiro: Edições Pinakotheke, 2006, 163.
2) Gullar, "The Modernity in Di Cavalcanti," 164.

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